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updated: 3/29/2012 12:34 PM

Scent of a buzzword: Keeping objectivity in the mainstream

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We all know very well the injunction that a rose by any other name should smell as sweet. But in popular political practice today, it seems more common to find critics stretching for synonyms -- say, Rosa sulphurea? Or Rosa canina? -- that might suggest the opposite.

To wit: Obamacare.

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Here we find a term coined and promoted by opponents with the express purpose of referring to national health care reform in language that, well, doesn't smell so hot.

Yet, so successful has that effort been in capsulizing the complex health care legislation that otherwise objective headline writers, news reporters and even columnists occasionally find it hard to resist the label despite its pejorative overtones.

Hence the headline that appeared in last Friday's Daily Herald on a story showing how health care reform has affected ordinary Americans differently: "The Supreme Court and Obamacare." A purist may well assume that with such a headline, we agree with the critics who would like the world to think that the health care reform legislation being studied by the Supreme Court is the singular brainchild of an authoritarian chief executive.

More accurately, we succumbed in that rare instance to a political shorthand that suits headline counts nicely and is readily understood by newspaper readers. Moreover, anyone who read even the first paragraph of the story this headline introduced would quickly recognize that this was a broad overview of an issue and not an analysis critical of the program then about to be undertaken by the nation's highest court. Not that we should be embracing the term in a headline, but it is an indication of how the made-up word is working its way into the mainstream of the language.

Interestingly, the notion that the convenience of that shorthand may be overtaking its original negative intent also struck several editors here who received a news release from the president's political campaign last week wholeheartedly embracing the term.

"I like Obamacare," crowed Obama campaign strategist David Axelrod before providing some specific reasons why he's "proud of it and you should be too," and then, somewhat contrarily, going on to ask what if Social Security had been called Roosevelt Security, or Medicare LBJ-Care?

In fact, Huffington Post reported last week that the Obama camp is going so far to give health care reform a refreshing outdoor-spring scent that it has introduced an entire line of T-shirts, bumper stickers and buttons designed, in Huffington's word, to "reclaim" the term "Obamacare."

Be that as it may, Daily Herald style guru Colleen Thomas and News Editor Neil Holdway, among others, are still reserving judgment and discouraging headline writers and objective news writers from using "Obamacare" or other popular buzzwords with negative implications like "Romneycare," "birther" or, even to some degree, "fracking." This latter term, scorned by the oil industry, has quickly become so universally applied to the process of collecting oil through hydraulic fracturing, though, that it may already be losing whatever derogatory intent it started with. In any case, we still don't like it for headlines, but can tolerate it in a story on second reference with a clear description of its meaning.

So, yes, we're well aware that appellations like Sulphur Rose and Dog Rose may leave a distinctly different impression than the usual on the mind of the star-crossed lover. And, especially when the practice is applied to politics, we do strive to let your own olfactory sensitivities determine from the objective facts surrounding it and not the labeling the relative pleasantness of a given idea.

Jim Slusher, jslusher@dailyherald.com, is an assistant managing editor at the Daily Herald. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

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